Joe Little: Public Relations Manager, New York City Rescue Mission

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Public Relations Manager, New York City Rescue Mission

By Penny Gray

Joe Little, public relations manager for the New York City Rescue Mission (NYCRM) on Lafayette Street, talks about the homeless and working poor in Lower Manhattan?and a different sort of experience of the holiday season.

What is the New York City Rescue Mission?
We exist to feed the poor, to give rest to the weary and give courage to the hopeless. We've been around since 1872.

1872? That's a long time ago.
Yup. We were founded in 1872 by Jerry McAuley. He was a real knucklehead from Lower Manhattan and a river thief, who committed all sorts of crimes. While serving time in Sing Sing Prison, he had a conversion, his heart was softened and he decided that when he got out of prison he wanted to do something to help men in his sort of situation, the ones who weren't going to jump through the hoop. And that's how the Rescue Mission came into being.

So NYCRM is a Christian organization?
It is; Christianity is part of the DNA of this programming, but it's entirely ecumenical and we have volunteers from all faith traditions. We know that we're not all that and that God loves us. We're no better than anybody else on this planet. We're just interested in how we can live out the teachings of Christ.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." We're here to serve the down and out, the marginalized, the outcast. Many are homeless, but not all of them. The working poor come to us as well, as do the folks visiting the family court. If you're visiting the family court, you're having a tough day.

The outreach isn't purely a homeless shelter?
We do have 99 beds for homeless men, and we serve dinner for them every night and breakfast for them every morning. But we also serve a free lunch to anybody on the streets who wants it, and we particularly try to reach out to the folks at the family courts because it's such a difficult experience. In addition, we have a food pantry from which families can come and get bags of groceries once a week. We've seen a 20 percent increase in use of the food pantry in the last year of the economic crisis.

We also have a Residency Recovery Program in which men can commit to staying with us full-time and learning about themselves and how to change before entering back into the world. Right now, we have 20-something men in our Residency Recovery Program. They're here to smooth off the rough edges, soften their hearts and strengthen their minds. Some of these guys have been on the streets all of their adult lives, so it's a big change.

What's the success rate of the Residential Recovery Program?
What's success? What's progress? What's change? It's hard to quantify the success of this mission. Is success to hold down a job for a week? A month? A year? Is it to stay off drugs for a week? A month? A year? I don't really know. How do we measure interior change? But I guess you could say we have a 100 percent success rate, if you measure by the fact that everybody who needs a bite gets a bite.

Does being Downtown shape the NYCRM?
You bet it does. We're definitely a Lower Manhattan thing. To some extent, Downtown is the locus of homelessness in Manhattan. It's really where the homeless live. And we have organic relationships with Lower Manhattan that have been built up over the last 140 years.

Downtown is also the location of a lot of wealth, and the two are inextricably intertwined. 9/11 witnessed a real reversal of all of that and really captured the spirit of the NYCRM. Many prospering people came to us that day-they came to eat, to pray, to take a shower. And in that momentary reversal of fortune, the homeless and the broken were given a chance to serve and to help those who were well- to-do. Sometimes everybody needs to be rescued.

What's happening at NYCRM for the holiday season?
As early as Thanksgiving, all of the colorful decorations and the bells came out. Our volunteers from Lower Manhattan really come out for the holiday season to help, realizing that blessing others is the same thing as being blessed. So that really raises the spirit to see so many folks participating. There's a real joyfulness and excitement.

Photo courtesy of NYC Rescue Mission

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